It’s an age of increasing demand for transparency in government, while anonymous political speech is unfettered. And some lawmakers don’t like it.
The Senate failed on Thursday to fast track a bill—H. 3189—that would require political groups to disclose their donors. The vote was 28-16 in favor of giving the bill priority status, just shy of the two-thirds majority vote needed.
Dark money—funds by private donors to organizations aimed at influencing political outcomes—has dominated much of the Senate debates on ethics reform and roads funding this year.
The ethics of dark money
“If we do not ban dark money, we have not passed an ethics bill,” Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said Thursday.
The issue has plagued lawmakers who say they’ve been targeted by robo-calls and email campaigns from the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Those campaigns were aimed both at preventing a gas tax increase and demanding the purest ethics laws the group thinks possible.
A spokesman for the organization was not available to comment prior to publication.
“The people of South Carolina are going to know where that money is coming from,” said Sen. Hugh Leatherman earlier in the week.
The Florence Republican thinks South Carolina shouldn’t let dark money influence the political process. “It’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong,” he said.
Martin said he’s not interested in knowing about donors who give small amounts to political action committees. He wants to know who is donating enough money to sway elections.
A First Amendment issue
President of the pro-small government South Carolina Policy Council, Ashley Landess said the bill would infringe on the First Amendment rights of people, not organizations.
“It is one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation being debated in this country,” she said.
Under the bill, groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Policy Council would be required to disclose donors if their written or phone communications mention a candidate who is running for office, even if those groups aren’t campaigning for or against the candidate.
But other groups are concerned about large donors pouring enough money into campaigns to sway elections.
Transparency in advocacy
“Dark money is a very serious problem,” said League of Women Voters Vice President, Lynn Teague. “Donor disclosure is a reasonable measure to keep citizens informed.”
The League of Women Voters is an issues advocacy group, supported primarily by member dues and donations. Their members are known to be in the League and proud to be in the League, said Teague. “But we don’t have any sugar daddy donors in the background.”
Electioneering legislation would likely not affect Teague’s group.
Instead, bill supporters say it’s aimed at organizations that advocate for or against candidates and parties.
Proponents of the bill have cited anonymous donors to Americans for Prosperity as evidence of the need to end the influence of dark money in South Carolina. The group is a 501(c)(4), only allowed to promote political issues and unable to campaign for specific candidates, according to factcheck.org.
Far-reaching electioneering law
A similar electioneering law was in place until 2010, when a federal court ruled the definitions of “committee” and “influence” were too far-reaching.
The electioneering law hadn’t been an issue previously, according to Teague.
But that law wasn’t as bad as the bill currently before the Senate, said Landess.
Many government officials say Americans for Prosperity has bought the state in order to stop a gas tax increase.
“Ridiculous. Please,” said Landess. “The only thing they’ve done is make phone calls to their members.”
Those South Carolina members made calls to legislators, attended hearings and held rallies at the gas pump to stop a tax increase. That increase would have raised the state’s 16.75-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 12 cents per gallon.
“Intimidation campaign” in the Statehouse
Groups like the Policy Council fear government officials may use donor information to intimidate their members.
“There is no question that there is an intimidation campaign over there and there has continued to be,” said Landess. She cited stories of Policy Council volunteers who she said were told by officials not to support the group.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, R-Anderson, said he voted against fast tracking the bill ahead of pro-life legislation. He also said he was voting in defense of free speech.
And political speech is free speech, according to the federal Supreme Court.
“We’re not trying to limit anybody’s speech,” said Sen. Martin. He just wants to know who is doing the talking.
“This debate is not about [politicians’] right to know anything,” said Landess.
Senators approved on Wednesday a bill requiring public officials in South Carolina to disclose their income sources, but not the amounts. That measure passed 40-1.
A bill to restructure the State Ethics Commission and to change how lawmakers are investigated is currently before the Senate.